The Civil War in Modbury

There were two battles at Modbury quite early on in the Civil War; the first in December 1642 and the second in February 1643. The following contemporary report confirms what took place on the first occasion.

PLIMOTH – December 9 1642

“Sir Nicholas Slaning and Sir Ralph Hopton have entered Devon: as you have alreadie heard, with two or three thousand foote and horse, and first tooke Tavestocke and next Plympton neere Plimoth and after went to Modberry, leaving these townes fortified where the high Sheriffe of Devon: Sir Edw. Fortescue met them, and by his warrant of Posse Commitatus called many thousands together at Modberry on Tuesday and Wednesday last, where they thought by examining everie man to persuade the people to stand against Parliament, either by faire or foule means, and also to increase their armies by taking up of volunteers and arming them with the armes they could take from honest men that were unwilling to follow their designes, by which meanes they would certainely have gotten many to serve them, for that most part appeared from 18 yeares to 60 yeares, but it hath pleased God to frustrate their designes for this time by meanes the Scottish Colonel went hence on Wednesday morning by foure of the clocke with four troopes of horse, viz Bar, Drakes, Captaine Tompsons, Captaine Pimmes and Captaine Goldes, and about 200 Dragoneeres, and coming to Modberry about nine of the clocke.

All the Countrie people fled, most of them being naked men (without armes) and those that had armes also threw them downe and ranne away without any armes or horses, by which meanes with the loss of one man, they tooke the high Sheriffe Sir Edmond Fortescue, Baronet Seymer and his eldest sonne which was Knight of the Shire for Devon in Parliament and Squire Arthur Basset of the North of Devon (a Noble Malignant) but the Clarke of the Peace and about thirteen Gentlemen more, which they carried from Dartmouth, and this day sent them hither by sea (God send them a faire winde, I hope here will be 30 or 40 great Malignants sent from hence to London). Sir Nicholas Slanning and Sir Ralph Hopton scaped very narrowly.

Captaine Goold, I heare, is sent with his troope to Exon to desire some aide from thence, which if they come to joyne with our forces, with Dartmouth and Plimouth I hope, by God’s assistance they will be speedily suppressed.

Our soldiers are heartie to the Worke at Modberry they got great store of monie, horses and armes from the Gentrie they met there.”
A similar contemporary report confirms these details and adds that Captaine Champernon and Captaine Pomeroy were amongst the prisoners, Champernon House having been ‘fired’.

The second battle of Modbury took place on 21st February 1643 when the Royalists expecting the advance of the Parliamentary Army from Kingsbridge had fortified themselves with breast works around the town.

The Earl of Stanford raised an army from North Devon of some 800 armed and clubbed men. The actual number seems to vary and has been reported as many of 10,000 of both horse and foot, mustered at Kingsbridge.

“The soldiers being ill disciplined” the Earl thought fit that some days might be spent to drill and exercise them and that all sorts of victuals and provisions should be brought to a place called Kingsbridge. The Countreymen upon exercise proved so valiant and hardy they desired nothing more than to fall upon the enemy.”
Mr William Lane lately appointed Rector of Aveton Gifford had begun to build a fort on Glebe land overlooking Hutton Bridge, a raised causeway, raised above the meadows at the head of the tidal estuary, with the intention of stopping the advance of Parliamentary forces from Kingsbridge but the fort was not completed.

The Parliamentarians made their way via Aveton Gifford with orders to fall upon Modbury on Tuesday early in the morning and a further force to attack from Plimoth at the same time, this latter force came via Flete where they captured a number of horses before approaching from the south west.

Sir Ralph Hopton with some 2000 horse and foot had barricaded the approaches to Modbury and laid the hedges half a mile round the town with musketeers. They had at least five pieces of ordinance for artillery support, breach loading anti personal weapons including two pieces captured at Liskeard in an earlier affray.

The main battle began between noon and three o’clock depending on which report you read and it was a long drawn out affair continuing into the early hours of the next morning. The Royalists had an initial advantage holding the high ground towards Ayleston whilst the Parliamentarians advanced up hill from Stoliford.

“The enemy seeing our men come so close upon them, drew out about 200 men, ours did the like, the enemy began upon them first, our men lying behind a bank gave them leave to discharge the first shot upon them. Then our men answered them with the like so they continued until night.”
The Royalists withdrew field-by-field and running short of ammunition, they took lead from the roof of Traine to make shot. A number of houses were fired and they withdrew to Champernowne House at the top of what is now Church Street, this is also referred to as Modbury House and the Court House and it had been badly damaged in the previous December.

The greater part of the force retired down what we know as Runaway Lane leaving a number of Dragoons to keep firing to give the impression a large force still occupied the house, they in turn were to withdraw. Some were of course taken prisoner and the cannon were captured by the Parliamentarians as were a large quantity of arms.

There is little doubt that reports were exaggerated, both sides taking prisoners. There were dead and wounded, some wounds self-inflicted by faulty weapons.

The battle was of course a victory for the Parliamentarians, the siege of Plymouth was raised and the Royalists returned to Cornwall and the armies dispersed.

The Devonshire forces now began to desert in droves, their commanders wrote to London of “the undisciplined forces of this county whose affections to their families and husbandry carry them from us daily in very great numbers with their arms.”

There is no mention of the weather conditions when these battles took place but it was winter and we have a good idea what Runaway Lane would have been like, until the recent work was carried out it was muddy, rutted and difficult to use – in 1643 the road to Kingsbridge was no doubt very similar, imagine 10,000 soldiers, both foot and horse as well as wagons with supplies coming to Modbury!

The present population of Modbury is some 1600, what was it like with 12000 men fighting in the town? The battle over, horses were stabled in the church and on local farms including Yarnicombe. What changes were now made, the Vicar, the Reverend Bagley, his wife and seven children were thrown out in due course and later Mr William Collins, Minister of the Gospel was intruded. There would have been an austere atmosphere, no singing and dancing and certainly no Maypole allowed.

It was no doubt sensible to keep your feelings to yourself if you didn’t favour Parliament but those known to be in favour of the King were hunted down as the list of fifteen suspects from Modbury indicates.

Beare, George of Modbury Carpenter
Blachford, John of Modbury Husbandman
Foord, Walter of Modbury Barber
Fortescue, Nicholas Gentleman
Heman, Lewis of Modbury Cordwainer
Hill, Robert of Modbury Gentleman
Hooper, John of Modbury Brazier
Hutchings, William of Modbury Gentleman
Jackson, John of Modbury Husbandman
Saunders, John of Modbury Husbandman
Stephens, Nicholas of Modbury Husbandman
Stitson, Vincent of Modbury Cordwainer
Stone, Thomas of Modbury Butcher
Symons, John of Modbury Cordwainer
Twiggs, James of Modbury Glover

Author: Phil Andrews